Like I said, as I was exploring guilt, I came across that post by Navalgazing Midwife. And at first I was angry. I felt like it was yet another post justifying all bad things happening to women who don’t breastfeed. But by this point I was realizing that my thinking on this matter was not clear, so I read her post again. Slower. Less prejudiced to what I was expecting to hear. And this time I saw the complexities of her post, the questions about declining numbers of women who can breastfeed, the questions about how to encourage breastfeeding without adding to the anguish of the women who can’t. I saw her generosity while asserting advocacy. And, most importantly, I saw her sentence about how she’s had women who were sexually abused refuse to breastfeed at all.
That sentence hit me like a smart bomb. Maybe I was ready for it, finally. Maybe it was the phrasing. I don’t know. All I know is that I had never before noticed anyone talking about a connection between a failure to breastfeed and sexual abuse. But it felt right. The knowledge settled like a missing piece inside me. But still, the picture was incomplete. I had a link, but I didn’t have a greater understanding. So, I started searching again.
Now that I knew about the whole sexual abuse survivor = difficulty breastfeeding link I could see that information everywhere. Over and over again the high breastfeeding failure rates for sexual abuse survivors were quoted or mentioned, but very few reasons why this would be. Several articles I read had merely a paragraph on the matter, stating that it was so, rattling off a few reasons, and then moving on. The few articles that dealt specifically with maternity and sexual abuse were highly unsatisfactory to me. They didn’t resonate. The reasons they offered for breastfeeding failure (feeling out of control, resentment of the baby, inability to bond, feeling invaded by the baby, feeling like the baby is abusing you) seemed as if they were missing something. Like a point. Or a finer understanding of all the angles to the psychology of the issue. Perhaps that was why some sexually abused women don’t breastfeed or have difficulties breastfeeding, but that wasn’t my reason. I hadn’t pinned down my reason yet. Of what I read, the following paragraph came the closest to explaining what my aversion was stemming from:
There are times when mothers who have suffered from sexual abuse just don't know what is natural and what is not when it comes to the experiences of breastfeeding their infant. "Some women become frightened because they have a pleasurable sensation while breastfeeding, thinking this is not normal," says Markell. "This is absolutely normal for women.I began to realize that my problem wasn't that I couldn't seperate my baby from my experience of my abuser, but that I couldn't separate MYSELF from my memories of my abuser. My abuse was playing out again, with myself in the role of seducer. Then I found this article and there were validations of my experience (other women who had felt as I did) but still there wasn't enough information as to how these feelings were playing out and what they meant. I was looking for someone to tell me why I wasn't abusing my child even though it felt like I was. And I needed more than "because you're just not." I have never been one to accept some else's word without accompanying proof.
My experience with breastfeeding information had been restricted to reading and listening to diatribes against women who don’t breastfeed, accounts of painful and awkward nursing sessions, thoughtful critiques of the social barriers to breastfeeding, articles on the benefits of breastfeeding, “Nursing Mother’s Companion” and “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding”, and indignation about people who object to seeing nursing mothers in public. The only information about pleasure and sexuality I had absorbed from these sources was that breastfeeding, allowing the possibilty that it could feel good, was still asexual, completely not sexual, don’t even start to think those good feelings are sexual. At the LLL site, I discovered this article which speaks on the fact that oxytocin which is present and released during sex is also present and released during breastfeeding, but it didn’t mention anything about feeling sexual WHILE breastfeeding. It talked about feeling relaxed or feeling cuddly or feeling loving. Not feeling turned on. In that very motherly moment. By the actions of your baby. So I started googling breastfeeding and sexuality. And I started coming across articles which stated that healthy women can separate sexual feelings from pleasurable nursing feelings.
It is wrong to say that breastfeeding is a sexual act just because the "cuddle hormone" oxytocin is present both during nursing and sexual intercourse. We should instead say that both nursing and sexual intercourse are connected to LOVE, INTIMACY, CLOSENESS - one towards your child, the other towards your spouse.
Ask breastfeeding women; the vast majority do NOT feel anything sexual while nursing their babies. When some do, it is because they connect breasts with sex, and their own thinking causes them feel aroused. This mental connection can be pretty automated, based on the way their brain has been conditioned to function. But it is a result of societal influence on one's thinking, not an inherent condition.
...Allow yourself to visualize the possibility of enjoying your breasts sexually when making love with your husband and, quite separately, imagine the comfort and maternal pleasure you experience when feeding your daughter. These are separate, though physiologically related activities. After all, your child was conceived through the sexual act itself. Perhaps your body is designed to enjoy both!Ok, so, while reading these things I am feeling even more freakish. Even more damaged. I'm giving them a lot of weight because they allow me to condem myself and my first instinct is always to condem myself. My old issues about feeling dangerous were surfacing. And then I came across these articles:
There is a natural sensuality inherent in both breastfeeding and sex, but expressed in very different ways. You can use your tongue to talk and communicate with many people and you can use it to passionately kiss your husband. It really is up to you. Do not push yourself beyond your own limits of comfort, but gently explore the issue to see if any guilt about sex (after becoming a mother) might be keeping you from enjoying your own sexual expression as a woman.
"Natural Breastfeeding: Lovemaking Between Mother and Her Baby"
“Maternal Sexuality and Breastfeeding”
They’re good, though the first one is a bit out there, still, somehow, to me, the information in it makes sense. (Except the bit on how breastfeeding asserts heterosexuality – first off, um, I’m gay and I was breastfed. Second off, I’m thinking that if breastfeeding has something to do with the establishment of sexual patterns on the infant’s psyche, I think it’s far more likely that the infant takes in everything about the experience – not just appropriately gendered aspects like the sight of the mother for boys or the feeling of penetration for girls – and then we force boys and girls to reject those aspects that don’t fit into our gendered little world, but that’s just me) But the second article was my favorite. Partly because it’s very queer inclusive. Go ahead, go read it. I’ll wait…
This article normalizes what I felt when breastfeeding Julia. Instead of asking me to ignore, suppress, theorize my way out of, or separate an integral part of my sexuality (the high sensitivity of my breasts) from my role as a mother, this article claims that the way through the dilemma is to reconcile them. To feel both sexual and maternal at the same time. Now I see it. Duh. My problem all along has been an internalization of the old Madonna/Whore dichotomy. An internalization not only by me, but by society at large. Sex, as it has been shaped by our current culture, is far too exploitative to be comfortably merged with “selfless” motherhood. Sex is seen as something you must be able to protect yourself from. Think about it. Been fucked? Screwed anyone over lately? So, here you have an innocent baby – unable to protect itself – and to be seen as putting that baby in the proximity of anything sexual is to risk being seen as putting that baby in danger. Or perhaps being a danger to that baby yourself. Just look at the women those articles (and others) report as having their children removed from them because someone decided that their breastfeeding relationship was a sexually exploitative one. As a society we lack a framework for understanding sex/sexuality outside of a committed, monogamous relationship as non-exploitative. ‘sex always hovers between pleasure and disgust and succumbs to the latter if there is no cultivation, no form of refinement, rite, or language to ratify and organize it’ (Sichtermann, 1986, p. 65).
So, now I know. Now I know what was bothering me. Because of my history of abuse, I am hypersensitive to exploitation (perceived or otherwise) in sexual situations. Because I am so used to assuming responsibility and guilt, I will always assume that I am the one doing the exploiting. Because I was told (and read) so many times that I was at a high risk for abusing my own children, I am quick to assume that I am being abusive. Now I can understand why I was so distressed while nursing Julia, why I have been so sensitive to the subject of breastfeeding in general.
Here’s the thing, though. I’m not writing this all out here to demonstrate to the blogosphere how damaged and broken I am. I’m writing this because of the high numbers of children who are sexually abused. Because in all those numbers, I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Who worries about this. How many other women have followed this twisty path to knowledge? How many more get stuck somewhere along the way – able only to verbalize an amorphous “ick” to the silent convergence of sexuality, maternity, social control, guilt, abuse, and exploitation?
And I wonder, too, if the cultural insistence that breastfeeding and nursing not be seen in any way as sexual is contributing to the declining rate of breastfeeding success. If it’s true that oxytocin aids in milk ‘let down’, and oxytocin is an integral part of sexual pleasure – could it be that our struggling to separate sexuality from lactation is inhibiting the release of oxytocin and interfering with the ability to eject milk? I wonder. I’m not saying here that if you don’t feel sexual then you’re not breastfeeding successfully, because every woman is different, but that, perhaps, this might be a factor for more women than admit or realize.
So, 5 parts, 7 days, 14 pages, and over 6 thousand words later… I’ve come to some sort of stopping point. I’ve worked so hard to heal myself, but that healing has had casualties. I’ve been unable to sustain a relationship with any woman who helped me heal sexually. Perhaps it’s because I picked women who needed healing from me as well, and once we had accomplished our purpose we no longer had need of each other, or perhaps once someone touches your damage so intimately that to remain in contact is to remain unacceptably vulnerable. I don’t know and I’m not about to subject you to a 5 post exploration of the subject. What I do know is that now, having read that my reactions and my physical sensations are normal and not depraved, I am going to start out breastfeeding. However, I will not sacrifice my relationship with my baby, or my baby’s emotional health, for the sake of “healing”. If at any point I find myself unable to nurse my baby free of emotional angst over the sensuality of the activity, I will stop. And when someone I do not know intimately asks me why I’m not breastfeeding, I’m going to say that I don’t breastfeed because it’s icky.
Thanks to Hope (and Megan) for helping me out by getting me a copy of an article on maternity and the sexual abuse survivor. Though I didn't quote the article, it helped inform what I wrote here.